Sexual assault in the military: making reforms happen

In the lead up to Veterans Day, we are sharing information about military sexual assaults. This is the third post in the series of three.

By Jenny Horn

The problem of sexual assaults and sexual harassment in the military is pervasive, but not unsolvable. There are several lines of opportunity that hold promise for all military servicemembers and veterans. These are just a few of those actions that could make a difference.

WRP, with the Service Women’s Action Network and the ACLU of Connecticut, brought Freedom of Information Act litigation against the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to obtain the release of records regarding how they address and respond to military sexual violence. This could go a long way toward showing the full scope of the problem and finding effective prevention measures.

The bill that Senator Kirsten Gillibrand reintroduced in April, the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, has far more bipartisan support now than ever. In May, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated that he no longer opposes the bill, and Senator Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, a sexual-assault survivor, and a retired lieutenant colonel in the National Guard, is now co-sponsoring the legislation after previously opposing it. Ernst has said that she had a change of heart because she spent years working to address the issue of military sexual assault within the existing system, yet “we are not seeing a dent in the numbers.”

At least 70 senators and President Biden have indicated their support for Gillibrand’s bill this year. If Gillibrand’s bill becomes law, it will produce a major shift — a voting out of the old way of doing things, and an admission by the government that the military-justice system must finally change. It won’t, however, be a save-all. If independent military prosecutors, rather than commanders, handle the prosecutorial decision-making process, more accused rapists and other assailants may be brought to court-martial. But without sentencing reform, they may not ultimately be held more accountable.

In late April, a Pentagon-organized independent review commission on military sexual assault made the first of a series of recommendations to Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III that included removing commanders from prosecutorial decisions for sexual-assault and related crimes. In a statement in late June, Austin said that he supported this recommendation, and in early July, Biden said that he, too, supported the change. If these policy changes move forward, prosecutions will no longer be at the whim of commanders and influenced so easily by military politics.

Decisions may happen faster, too; right now, prosecutorial decisions go up the chain of commanders one by one, culminating in a final decision made by a commander of senior rank, which can take many months.

Since 2011, servicemembers who experience military sexual assault and file an unrestricted report can request a transfer to a new unit or installation so they don’t have to work and live with their rapists. Since 2013, servicemembers also have the option of asking for special victims’ counsels, who provide them with information, resources and support after sexual assault.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.) is also trying to reach and support more veterans who have experienced military sexual trauma. It has mailed out more than 475,000 letters to veterans with other-than-honorable discharges informing them of available V.A. services. With a universal screening program, the V.A. now asks every veteran receiving health care whether they experienced a sexual trauma during service, and those who did are told about the support they can receive. There are also now designated veterans service representatives, located within five central offices, who specialize in processing military sexual-trauma-related claims, and the V.A. has eliminated follow-up phone calls that could retraumatize veterans.

In January 2021, President Trump signed into law the Deborah Sampson Act, a comprehensive bill named after the woman who posed as a man during the Revolutionary War in order to serve in the Continental Army. The law includes provisions to monitor and address sexual harassment and sexual assault at V.A. health centers, and requires V.A. centers to make it easier for women to report harassment or assault; it also requires V.A. employees to report harassment they observe (and be punished if they don’t).

Photo credit: by Lance Cpl. Caitlin Brink. Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island. Active duty and former Marines from all over the nation came to Parris Island to attend the 70th anniversary of females in the Marine Corps celebration held at the 4th Recruit Training Battalion on March 1, 2013. Parris Island began training female Marine recruits in 1949, and today 4th RTBn. is the home of all female enlisted recruit training for Marines.

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